Robin Yassin-Kassab

The Gulf Between Us

with 11 comments

Another book review, fairly horribly edited by the Guardian. Here’s the unedited version:

The Arab world’s bestselling novel of recent years has been Alaa Al Aswany’s “Yacoubian Building”, which features a gay journalist, a corrupt minister, and sexual abuse in police cells. The very grown-up film of the book has reached a huge audience. Arabic novels on sale in the Gulf discuss taboos from pre-marital romance to sectarian conflict and slavery. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera broadcasts from Qatar, offering the Arabs a range of political debate which shames the BBC, and which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Satellite and the internet have effectively finished the Arab age of censorship. As for books in English, the ‘Arab World’ sections of many Gulf bookshops could be renamed ‘Harem Fantasy for Whites’, concentrating disproportionately on more or less fraudulent revelations of the “Princess” variety. So long as it sells, very nearly anything goes.

Given the new level of official Arab tolerance, it was surprising to hear that Geraldine Bedell’s “The Gulf Between Us”, a romantic comedy narrated by a middle-aged Englishwoman, had been banned from the International Festival of Literature in Dubai, and this because the novel contains a ‘gay shaikh’. Both author and publisher cried censorship, plunging the festival – Dubai’s first – into a swamp of bad publicity. Margaret Atwood cancelled her appearance.

A few days after the damage had been done, the truth came out: the book hadn’t been banned. Like many others, it was not selected in the first place. Maragaret Atwood regretted her cancellation.

The phantom censorship drama may help sales, but does a disservice to Bedell, whose novel treats the Gulf with affection and understanding. The protagonist, Annie Lester, is single parent to three unruly sons in the fictional emirate of Hawar. Annie thinks her eldest son’s wedding is the most disruption she has a right to expect, but another son has a secret to reveal, and her childhood boyfriend – now a sexy film star – has arrived at the reception. One thing leads very cleverly, with great pace, to another, until Annie’s future in the emirate, and the safety of her sons, hangs in the balance. The story unfolds in the months leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. The metaphorical temperature constantly rises.

Hawar (the word means ‘discussion’) is obviously based on Bahrain, with its pearl divers, Sunni-Shia tensions and barely concealed royal disputes, but is a recognisable portrait of any Gulf state: – “an affluent bubble in a cloudless sky, confected in a few decades from desert subsistence into cities, hotels and high rises.” Bedell skillfully sketches the enbubbled communities of the Gulf – Western, Arab, Asian – and their internal stratifications of class, status and tribe. She is as good on human commonalities as she is at communal distinctions.

Her treatment of attitudes to gays is balanced and accurate. Her homophobes are as likely to be Anglos as Arabs. Indeed the book’s serious theme is prejudice of all varieties, secular and religious, political and sexual, anti-Arab and anti-Western. The novel has a generosity of spirit which the allegations of censorship do not.

Most impressively, “The Gulf Between Us” offers a living breathing portrait of a family, not just the individual characters but also their continual, understated effect on each other. In considering the ramifications of each event on her sons as well as herself, Annie sounds like an entire family talking. In plot terms, her romance is nicely interwoven with her sons’ ardent adventures. The novel has stirring climaxes and endless twists, and is all gripping stuff, even if comic realism slides into genre formula towards the unconvincing end. But at its worst it’s still great escapism: light, finely-observed, funny and reflective.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 21, 2009 at 10:55 am

11 Responses

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  1. I put a comment on this article up as an entry on my blog. I am not sure why it does not appear as a link.

    Joachim Martillo

    March 24, 2009 at 4:44 pm

  2. Thank you Robin for talking about this novel..

    Now as a living individual in the Arab world, I can tell you that some gulf countries still have some restrictions on the media productions (novels, books, newspapers,…). In contrast, Egypt for example is way advanced in this regard compared to some gulf countries and this is why Yacoubian Building acquired fame since it handles never-been-publicised issues like homosexuality.

    There have been many banned novels in Saudi Arabia written by Saudis which discussed the religion/sex/politics taboos. However, I am pretty confident to say that English-written novels are safe most of the times from such a banning process.

    Thank you Robin for giving this informative review of the book.. I will try to get it soon.

    Best regards,


    March 26, 2009 at 10:45 am

  3. I’m not sure I recommend it, Wa’el. Wait for the next review – I do recommend the book discussed there.

    I’ve seen the Yacoubian Building on sale – in Arabic – in more than one Gulf country. Of course the Saudis still have censorship. I was making the point that censorship in the Arab world is not as balnket or as simple as some Westerners think. It is the Western assumption that they understand how it works which allowed Bedell and her publisher to get away with these claims of censorship. Her book hasn’t been banned in the Emirates, although it could be understood as a slanderous attack on the Bahraini royal family.


    March 26, 2009 at 11:50 am

  4. Robin,
    Don’t you think that sexual immorality dressed as “taboo” in the Middle East is used to sidetrack the real taboos which are religious and political and that deal directly with the human condition of the Arab man? I honestly tried to watch the Yacoubian building but I could not shake off the feeling that it was just a very stupid film. I suspect the book to be very similar. There are many people today who consider Nizar Qabbani’s writings to be “daring”, yet I consider some of his writings to be vulgar and see him as the indirect godfather for today’s Rotana culture. A culture which should more aptly carry the clueless slogan “free the body to free the mind”. The tragedy for these people is that 2500 years of human philosophy and religion, of which they are the world’s true heir historically and culturally, have told us again and again that it is the other way around. Yet still our governments force feed people not only dogma, but also the sham resistance to such dogma!


    April 14, 2009 at 9:48 am

  5. Wassim – I wasn’t praising any of these cultural products, just telling the western reader that they are available in the Gulf. I can take or leave the film of the Yacoubian Building, but I do think the novel is a great piece of work. It’s a genuine attempt to capture a historical moment and all its injustice in Egypt. And I have a great deal of respect for Qabbani (but I prefer Maghout). I think the Rotana culture can’t be blamed on Qabbani, but rather on the Saudi media which, when it isn’t telling us that Shia are Kuffar and Hamas is Shia, broadcasts a heavy diet of Seinfeld, Hollywood, and MTV.


    April 14, 2009 at 10:45 am

  6. As a Brit who has lived in the Gulf, I would say that THE GULF BETWEEN US paints a realistic picture of the collisions that occur between liberal Westerners and conservative Muslims in one of what the author aptly calls Arabia’s “archaic heriditary dictatorships”. Although Geraldine Beddell writes mainly (too much perhaps) about an English mother’s reaction to finding her son is gay (and her reaction seems to belong to an earlier era), she does attempt to show that no Arab is allowed to be glad to be gay. It’s a pity she made her son’s boyfriend the Crown Prince – somebody lower down the food chain has just as many problems.
    I wished that THE YAKOUBIAN BUILDING had gone a little deeper in exploring the hardships facing gay Muslims. I wrote about gay (and lesbian) Arabs in my own novel SHAIKH-DOWN which 20 UK publishers told me was unpublishable (this was in the aftermath of Salman Rushdie’s little ‘misadventure’)and which I had to self-publish (commercial suicide!). Will gay Muslims ever dare to come out? Don’t hold your breath.

    David Gee

    August 24, 2009 at 10:47 am

  7. David – there are also liberal Muslims and conservative Westerners, which I think Bedell’s book did a reasonable job of showing.

    I certainly wouldn’t call the hereditary dictatorships in the Gulf archaic – they are very modern, unfortunately..

    The Yaqoobian Building could hardly be expected to focus on the hardships of ‘gay Muslims’ – it was a particular novel about Cairene Arabs, not all Muslims, of whom there are well over a billion.

    Perhaps the publishers steered clear of your book not for fear of the mad Muslims, but because they feared it would be commercial suicide to publish – as you seem to have discovered yourself.

    I’ve met several ‘gay Muslims’ who have ‘come out’ myself, although their definition of ‘come out’ may not be the same as yours. And there’s no reason why it should be.

    Here’s a self-proclaimed lesbian from Syria you may want to talk to. http://razanghazzawi.com/ But be careful! She doesn’t like orientalists!


    August 24, 2009 at 5:22 pm

  8. Sorry to say it, David, but another reason your book may have been turned down is that it appears to run out a list of racist anti-arab stereotypes. Randy Arabs with petrodollars, dusky maidens, etc. Perhaps you could do a novel about black men with huge penises dancing on the street corner while chewing corn and selling drugs, their fat-assed hos behind them?

    And perhaps the publishers thought that a romp involving regime change, the dawn of democracy among the benighted Arabs, and the Kaaba at Mecca being bombed was not actually hilariously funny, given that the Middle East has been suffering from war for decades, much of it organised by the same west that whinges on about women’s rights and gay rights.

    Have you lived in Egypt too? Culturally it really is very different from the Gulf, you know. Dear me. Like a village in Finland is not the same as Brooklyn, although they’re both in the West. Do you begin to understand.

    I also wonder how well you do know the Gulf. On your website you say ‘I know there are educated, open-minded Arab women, but I’ve never met one.’ This is an astounding statement which, I fear, says much more about you than about Arab society.


    August 24, 2009 at 5:41 pm

  9. Robin, I stand reproved. What I meant to say was that I never met a woman like my fictional character Nayla who has male and female lovers and takes up the revolutionary cause (after a second marriage to a pious and very unconservative Shaikh). But in the early 1980s when I was in Qatar I saw very few instances of women being encouraged to have a political or intellectual voice. There was one woman in Bahrain who provided a starting point for Nayla, but she was the only Arab woman who seemed to feel comfortable talking politics and social issues with an English guest. If more women feel comfortable doing that today, I say hurrah!

    I take your point about Egypt (which I’ve only visited as a tourist). Egyptians (and Syrians) were the most outspoken (within the limitations of the social restrictions) of the women who worked with me (I managed a call-centre).

    You are right to complain that my novel SHAIKH-DOWN appears to have a cast of stereotypes. As I say on the website, I set out to show how the Arab weakness for sex with Western women could be used to plant an assassin in a Ruler’s bedroom. Clearly a fairly preposterous scenario, but it’s meant to make people laugh. Not all Arabs have this weakness, I know, but I met many in Qatar and (especially) Bahrain who did.

    As I say on my website, at the heart of the book is a true event, the abduction, torture and death of a young man who worked with me. Because of this I decided to turn the comic elements of my revolutionary “blueprint” into something darker: a wave of revolutions like dominoes falling, leading to a vision of Armageddon. Had the book been a success, it was my intention (abandoned now) to develop it into a trilogy, with the revolution in Belaj being reversed and maybe reversed again. Each book would end with a different “vision” of the more distant future: one might be the ushering in of an era of harmony and co-existence between East and Western, between Muslims, Jews and Christians. This is perhaps just as far-fetched and, to many, as undesirable as Armageddon.

    Some funny things happened in Bahrain when I lived there (mostly involving cabin crew!)and this gave me the basis for my own book – as presumably was also the case with Geraldine Beddell. Although my book, like hers, is a comedy, I think we both set out to show how a few well-meaning Brits do try to reach out and have meaningful relationships with open-minded Arabs, male and female, straight and gay.

    Human relations. Ultimately this is what most fiction deals with, tragedy and comedy, whatever the setting.

    David Gee

    August 25, 2009 at 10:48 am

  10. That last point’s certainly true, David. And forgive me if I’m too fierce. It keeps on raining, you see. I should go back to the Gulf…


    August 27, 2009 at 8:15 am

    • Be fierce, Robin! It shows how strongly you feel. I began writing SHAIKH-DOWN in a blaze of anger at the “disappearance” of the boy (called Ali Qassim in the book). His family and the people I worked with were too scared to talk about it. I suppose this was a fact of life in 1970s/80s Bahrain (is it still?) – like the Amir’s airhostess parties (this was in Shaikh Isa’s day).

      The contrast between the cabin crew capers and the power of the secret police gave me the idea for my novel. In my book the boy’s disappearance leads to a coup – and the Amir’s assassination. I conceived it as a thriller but it somehow worked best as a comedy:
      revenge as a dish with a warm sauce (better served cold, I know). I hope SHAIKH-DOWN isn’t offensive. I thought that giving the Arab world its first woman President was something of a personal coup!

      David Gee

      August 27, 2009 at 10:05 am

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